This 'airplane parking lot' at Alice Springs has never been busier

Already home to over 100 jets, the outback storage facility being expanded to take 60 additional jets.

By Bloomberg News, October 27 2020
This 'airplane parking lot' at Alice Springs has never been busier

Aircraft engineer Dan Baker expected his career would let him see the world. And since starting as an apprentice aged 16 with British Airways in London, it’s taken him to Africa, the Caribbean, New Zealand and the Middle East, where he worked for Emirates.

Now he’s in a desert of a different sort – Australia’s vast red center. With the coronavirus pandemic upending global aviation and putting millions out of work, Baker has found an unlikely job in Alice Springs, storing and maintaining scores of grounded jumbo jets.

“I had to do a bit of looking up to see what life would be like,” Baker, 49, says of his new surrounds, a remote town of 25,000 better known as a jumping off point for famous sights like Uluru and the Olgas. “So far, it’s been great."

The Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage facility (APAS) makes a strange and eerie sight, with the flat landscape punctuated by familiar tall tail fins against a brooding desert sky.

A dust storm blows though the APAS facility.. David Gray/Bloomberg
A dust storm blows though the APAS facility.
David Gray/Bloomberg

More than 100 planes are stored at the purpose-built facility adjacent to the airport, which can keep jets maintained and ready to be brought back into service when needed. Despite spiraling Covid-19 case numbers in Europe and the U.S., some are returning to the skies.

Data from aviation analytics company Cirium show the number of aircraft making at least one flight per day in the Asia-Pacific region is almost back to pre-Covid levels. That’s largely thanks to recovering domestic markets in places like China, where the outbreak is more or less under control.

Long road to recovery

International routes, however, remain weak. The International Air Transport Association last month downgraded its traffic forecast for 2020 to reflect a weaker-than-expected recovery.

The group, which represents some 290 airlines, now expects full-year traffic to be down 66% versus 2019, more than a previous estimate of a 63% decline. Tellingly, tail fins from Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific - both carriers without a domestic market – are most commonly seen at the facility.

Cirium data also show the number of planes in storage around much of Asia declining. At Alice Springs, though, the numbers keep rising.

Many Asian locations are too humid for long-term storage of aircraft, so planes that were parked there on the expectation of a quick return to the skies are now heading to Alice Springs, whose dry, desert air and cool nights make for near-perfect storage conditions.

Tom Vincent checks over aircraft at the facility.. David Gray/Bloomberg
Tom Vincent checks over aircraft at the facility.
David Gray/Bloomberg

APAS Managing Director Tom Vincent says the idea of a storage facility in Australia’s center had been around for a long time. But the former Deutsche Bank debt analyst was the first to act on it, raising $5.5 million and clearing a slew of regulatory requirements to build it in 2013 before accepting his first plane a year later.

Vincent, 42, is planning for his facility to become the main southern hemisphere hub for long-term aircraft storage, even after the pandemic is over.

He’s about to submit planning applications for a fourth expansion, including another huge fenced platform that will accommodate a further 60 wide-body jets, taking capacity to between 250 and 300 aircraft.

“It’s been intense,” Vincent says of 2020. He expects the number of planes parked at APAS to eventually settle at around 200.

“It’s been an incredibly difficult time for the industry. Yes, there will be certain aircraft that go back into operation, hopefully sooner rather than later, but there’s still a huge pipeline of aircraft that are going to require parking and maintenance.”

An employee tends to an engine.. David Gray/Bloomberg

An employee tends to an engine.

David Gray/Bloomberg

Vincent has been on a necessary hiring spree, expanding to more than 80 employees, from locally hired administrative staff to highly skilled aircraft engineers like Baker.

Just two weeks into his new job, Baker’s days are spent supervising a three-stage induction process for each new plane, ranging from draining the engines of fluids to ensuring every last gap and crevice in the jet’s body is sealed from dust and insects.

One of the areas most at risk during long-term storage is the pitot-static system, a tiny opening at the front of every jet, and the static port, another cavity a little further along the side of the aircraft. Together, these two sensors provide airspeed data.

“It’s fundamental to flight,” the New Zealand native explains from the packed dirt platform where the jets are prepared. “We get that covered up pretty quickly.”

The long sleep

It takes a team of a dozen people up to five days to induct a plane for storage. Two of those are spent entirely on taping and covering everything to protect the engines and systems, a process that can take between 40 and 50 rolls of tape.

While Vincent, an Australian who splits his time between Alice Springs and Brisbane, is reluctant to share the typical cost of storing a plane, he says every two weeks, APAS gets through a pallet of tape that costs almost $50,000.

Every plane has different requirements, depending on the manual. Airbus, for example, requires all passenger windows be covered and taped as well, while Boeing does not.

Once inducted, sealed and towed to a parking bay, each plane is on a rolling system of seven, 30 and 90-day checks.

During this time, bags of desiccant in the engine bays are examined, tires are rotated and brake systems are maintained. Storing a plane is certainly not simply a matter of parking it and walking away.

Cathay Pacific Pilots photograph their aircraft, which is headed for the APAS facility, after landing at Alice Springs Airport.. David Gray/Bloomberg
Cathay Pacific Pilots photograph their aircraft, which is headed for the APAS facility, after landing at Alice Springs Airport.
David Gray/Bloomberg

Vincent says aircrews can become quite nostalgic when they step off the plane for the last time.

“I meet most crews as they come off the aircraft,” he says. “They’re not sure when they’re going to see the aircraft again. Usually there’s photos. We like to say we’re going to look forward to when they come back to pick them up.”

Exactly when that might be remains an open question. For now, these planes sit silently in the Australian outback, a surreal monument to a different time.

Also read: How Qantas will hibernate its Airbus A380s for the next three years

This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here

17 Jun 2020

Total posts 154

Still don't understand why parking aircraft in Alice Springs is good enough for Cathay and Singapore, but Qantas send their aircraft to the USA. 

Given the billions Qantas has received in government assistance this year, it would be better if they support Australian business and not offshore ones. 

31 Mar 2014

Total posts 344

Because Qantas can utilise their maintenance staff from LAX, which is only a short drive to where the planes are being stored. Would be a considerably cheaper option. Especially if any parts or equipment needs to be transported in. 

SQ

23 Oct 2015

Total posts 22

because Qantas has its maintenance facility a short hop from where they are being stored.

19 Sep 2020

Total posts 8

And because Qantas wants to squash unions and renegotiate EBA. Qantas operates daily federal gov underwritten flights to Alice Springs from all major capital cities in Australia (because of pina gap facility😉) and has permanent workforce there, they could have stored planes there but they dont want to..

Air NZ flys from Brisbane to LA cargo only flights with 787, subsidised by Australian federal gov, and they are about to start Sydney to US and Melbourne to US as well, qantas was offered a lot more money to do the same but they refused, thats one of many examples. they are thinking long term and economics of doing things in Australia is insignificant for Mr Allan, more pain on workers better long term

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1124

Vannn Qantas has its own dedicated cargo fleet flying to the US the website the ‘qantas source’ has the details.  They also have passenger A333s flying cargo throughout Asia. Air NZ may have won a tender for a specific purpose but QF have been flying cargo on that route for years. They store the planes in the US because the price may be good but also the nearest maintenance team is much closer.

19 Sep 2020

Total posts 8

I know what they fly thanks for your advice, but during the pandemic in case you haven't noticed there is more demand than just 2 747 with Atlas air. So you are trying to say that foreign airliners flying to and from Australia to a third country with passanger aircraft and making profit out of it is ok when Qantas operates same aircraft and was offered a lot more money but they refused to, tell me why? Why did Quantas refuse to fly to LA from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne subsidised by the gov? They would make money even if there was not enough goods to carry, on top they could have carried some business class passengers and make money out of it, somethingthat air NZ can not do. 

You can work on your theories all you want but as someone who's been a pilot with that very airline I know exactly why 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Jul 2011

Total posts 50

At the end of the day, you don't have all the available information. Nor are you an airline CEO. So mostly just uneducated opinions of how a business should be run from a couch. 

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1124

Vannn the two 747-8s carry 130 tonnes each which isn’t shabby plus the 50tonne capacity 767 plus the A333s working Asia. I’m sure the two 747-8s are quite busy probably on the routes you named but most likely via a couple of stops that freighters tend to do, and I expect they are fully loaded given current freight demand. Compared to a 747-8 I suspect the 787 isn’t as cost effective. I’m sure their bean counters are onto that.

19 Sep 2020

Total posts 8

You are unbelievable, so qantas has more than enough capacity for US routes but Australia government is paying millions to Air NZ to fly cargo only flights to US, ok, your logic is amazing. Why dont you look up where exactly those 2 747s fly and how much cargo they actually carry to US compared to how much demand is out there, throwing words without any knowledge makes no sense does it?

Btw only thing thats Australian for those atlas air 747s is owner, qantas which is 50% Australian owned, thats it

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1124

Vannn just checked the schedule ANZ has a weekly 787 and Qantas a 748 with three times the capacity. Enuff said

Etihad - Etihad Guest

10 Oct 2018

Total posts 3

And this is why pilots don’t run airlines... 

19 Sep 2020

Total posts 8

No that is why Air NZ, Singapore Airlines, Cathy and others get paid by Australian government to carry goods, employee their workers and contribute to their economies with the money that your kids have to pay back. Look up how many pilots have become CEOs and board members: pilots do run airlines 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 Feb 2015

Total posts 313

Hopefully we never see this again, there are few winners!!

29 Jan 2020

Total posts 22

I do understand why Qantas parked the Aircraft in the USA desert, as it so close to their maintenance base at LAX.

However I don’t understand why Air NZ are flying 787s as freighters basically, underwritten by Australian Government, from here to USA, when one would have thought Qantas could have used its 787s for this?

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 808

It would have been a tender price situation and the best price wins.  It is the same reason Hi-Fly do Defence flights rather than Qantas.  Of course, it would be different if Qantas was a government owned airline but it is a private company.

XWu
XWu

09 May 2020

Total posts 279

Dunno about the Californian desert but red centre’s dust is very fine and definitely gets into everywhere; still sometimes find deposits of fine red sand from gear last used in Central Australia 5 years ago.

Actually surprised they only use 50 rolls of tape (unless it’s a very very big roll), but I’m sure they know what they’re doing.

I suppose even with QF business, the privately run storage facility at ASP have plenty of business as the article had suggested. 

16 Dec 2016

Total posts 45

Vannn how would you possibly know how much Qantas was offered to run Freight to the US? You just don’t and you’re making stuff up! Also they haven’t been given BILLIONS to underwrite flights. $128 million in payments to keep a minimum domestic network operating. Not an insignificant amount but not billions. It is a business & it is not run to quash unions, it’s run to fly planes and make a profit. The ability to do both of those things has been removed by Government legislation (as a result of COVID-19) so it’s energy is going into staying afloat. Your conspiracy theory belongs with Q-Anon. 

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

08 May 2020

Total posts 17

I hope there has been 80% tariffs added to any China based airliners parked there - including ones from that "other" part of China - Hong Kong SAR.  Accuse them of  "dumping" ( like Aussie red wine into the Chinese market? ) ; or find an "exotic pest" or "exotic weed" on their aircraft that represents a biosecurity / quarantine risk ( like our barley? )

Whatever side you are on I think it’s time for Joyce to retire and run IHG which includes Aer Lingus and let someone else have a shot at growing Qantas post Covid. Too close to Hrdlicka at BainVirgin and too comfortable....ten years is enough already. Need someone who has vision who can work with pilots and unions not fight them. He’s too tired. Need a young gun.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

21 Feb 2012

Total posts 30

vannn, you sure you were a pilot with Qantas?   One would think you could at least spell your employers name correctly...


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